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A Bright Future
How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow
Foreword by Steven Pinker
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As climate change quickly approaches a series of turning points that guarantee disastrous outcomes, a solution is hiding in plain sight. Several countries have already replaced fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources, and done so rapidly, in one to two decades. By following their methods, we could decarbonize the global economy by midcentury, replacing fossil fuels even while world energy use continues to rise. But so far we have lacked the courage to really try.
In this clear-sighted and compelling book, Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist explain how clean energy quickly replaced fossil fuels in such places as Sweden, France, South Korea, and Ontario. Their people enjoyed prosperity and growing energy use in harmony with the natural environment. They didn't do this through personal sacrifice, nor through 100 percent renewables, but by using them in combination with an energy source the Swedes call kÃ¤kraft, hundreds of times safer and cleaner than coal.
Clearly written and beautifully illustrated, yet footnoted with extensive technical references, Goldstein and Qvist's book will provide a new touchstone in discussions of climate change. It could spark a shift in world energy policy that, in the words of Steven Pinker's foreword, literally saves the world.
The task before humanity is to rapidly shift from CO2-emitting fossil fuels, which now provide 85 percent of the world’s growing energy needs, to clean energy.
Climate Won’t Wait
IF YOU THINK climate change is a serious problem, we have bad news: it’s worse than you think.
We all see the graph of carbon pollution—emissions of carbon dioxide, CO2—going up year by year and the graph of global temperature rising year by year. So it’s natural to feel that if we just stopped the rise in CO2 emissions, the temperature would also stop rising. Stopping the rise in emissions is within reach; it’s what the Paris Agreement would do if the United States rejoined it and every country in the world achieved its goals under the treaty. But that would not stop global warming.1
Think about it: even if emissions stopped rising, we would still be putting CO2 into the atmosphere at today’s high rate, and the concentration of atmospheric CO2 would keep going up. The CO2 concentration has already risen from about 280 parts per million (ppm) before industrialization to about 410 ppm currently. Since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and nobody has yet invented a cheap and effective way to remove it, every ton we put into the air will stay there a long time.
At today’s rate, every year the world puts about 35 billion tons of new CO2 into an atmosphere already overloaded. That much CO2 weighs about as much as 15 billion Ford Explorer SUVs, 2 for every human being on the planet, added every year. Other greenhouse gases, primarily unburned methane, contribute half again as much warming effect.2 The Paris Agreement, if successful, would continue putting that much additional carbon into the atmosphere every year.3 We need instead to quickly reduce that rate toward zero, but no plan currently in play does that effectively.
In fact, in the twenty-first century, the fastest-growing energy source in the world is coal, the most CO2 intensive and toxic of the fossil fuels. Coal use has spiked faster than ever since 2001.4 China alone in just five years, 2001–2006, doubled its already huge coal consumption. President Trump’s promise in 2017 to end the US “war on coal” and ramp up the industry’s growth is only the latest, minor, chapter in the story. The growth of coal is occurring mostly in poorer countries, because coal is cheap, while the fracking revolution in the United States has led to the steady replacement of coal by even cheaper methane (natural gas).
Together, the fossil fuels—coal, oil, and methane—supply 85 percent of the world’s energy and are the main source of CO2 emissions.5 That percentage has to be quickly, in just a few decades, reduced to near zero, a herculean task on a global scale. This process of shifting off of fossil fuels is called decarbonization.
Even if we immediately stopped putting any new carbon in the atmosphere, today’s CO2 concentration of 410 ppm would cause temperatures to keep rising, although more slowly.6 It would take a long time to bring temperatures back, but we’d have a good chance to head off the worst of the crisis. But until we stop adding more carbon, and not just flatten out the rate at which we keep adding carbon every year, we don’t have a hope.
To accomplish a rapid decarbonization in the next couple of decades, the world will need to cut emissions in half for each of the next few decades, according to one road map.7 What matters most right now is how fast the world can accomplish this. Carbon emissions today affect future climate outcomes, and the process is not linear. You might think that a delay of a decade or two in phasing down fossil emissions would merely advance bad climate outcomes by a decade or two, but it’s much more serious than that.
Two Kinds of Change
To understand why, we need to distinguish two types of climate change. One is the kind of effect we already see or expect to see soon and that climate scientists warned about decades ago—rising sea levels, more frequent large hurricanes, more floods and droughts and wildfires, record heat waves, and such. When people say “climate change is already here,” these are the effects they refer to.8 Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the California drought, the Russian wildfires and those in the western US states, the European flooding, and the super typhoon in the Philippines are all recent examples of extreme weather of the type that global warming makes more likely. No single event can be directly tied to global warming, but the overall pattern fits what a warming planet produces.
But these events are merely inconvenient and expensive in the big picture. “Climate change is here now” does not convey the reality that climate change in the coming years will be far, far worse than today’s extreme weather.
The second type of climate change is the potential “tipping points” that cause truly catastrophic shifts. These are still uncertain, and we may not know we have gone over the edge into irreversible shifts until it is way too late to do anything about it. We might have more time or turn out to be okay, but this is a terrible gamble to make. To invite a substantial possibility of catastrophic tipping points would be extremely irresponsible.
One catastrophic potential is for large sea-level rise much faster than is generally expected. We currently measure sea-level rise in inches, and we can adapt (at some expense) by building seawalls and moving infrastructure around. But some climate models show the potential for sea level to rise by 10 feet or more in this century. That’s a game changer, in a world where most of the major cities are located on the coasts.
In New York, the average high tide, twice a day, would be higher than the Hurricane Sandy flooding. Downtown would be underwater. In Boston, Logan Airport would be submerged, as would Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). New Orleans and Miami would be way underwater. Same for San Francisco’s airport. (The group Climate Central has created photo illustrations of these locations.)9 Outside the United States, the outcomes would be worse. Coastal cities across Asia with hundreds of millions of inhabitants could be severely impacted.10 And in West Africa, tens of millions live in vulnerable coastal regions.
Most of the world’s ice, some 7 million cubic miles of it, is in the ice sheet covering Antarctica in the South. But another ice sheet, on Greenland, contains more than a half million cubic miles’ worth. To put these quantities in perspective, if all the Antarctic ice melted, sea levels would rise by 200 feet, and if the Greenland sheet all melted, the sea would rise by 20 feet.11
So far, the North of the Earth has been melting faster than the South, with the relatively thin sea ice in the Arctic Sea having shrunk by a third in the past twenty-five years. The summer of 2016 registered record high Arctic temperatures, 20ºC above normal.12 (The world as a whole is currently about 1ºC above preindustrial levels.) This Arctic thaw is quite dangerous in its own right, because it can shift global weather patterns such as those driven by the jet streams. And multiple “positive feedback loops” are making the problem accelerate. Melting sea ice means less reflection of sunlight, which means warmer Arctic water and less ice. Melting permafrost on land is releasing methane gas, which increases global warming and melts more permafrost.
One possible disaster resulting from warmer temperatures in northern areas is a potential tipping point associated with the Greenland ice sheet. The “Atlantic conveyor belt” consists of warm water moving up the eastern coast of North America as the Gulf Stream and then sinking 10,000 feet near Greenland and moving back to the equator, where it warms and rises again. Large amounts of freshwater entering the North Atlantic off Greenland as the ice melts could shut down the conveyor belt because freshwater does not sink like saltwater. This could trigger an ice age in North America and Europe—an ironic consequence of global warming but one associated in the past with the conveyor-belt shutdown. Climate scientists worried about this possibility several decades ago and then decided about a decade ago that it was very unlikely, but they have now begun to worry about it again.13
The difference is dramatic between the inconvenience and expense of today’s climate change and the catastrophe of climate tipping points in the upcoming decades or centuries. For example, Boston’s winter of 2015 saw record snowfall, as freakish weather proliferated globally in a changing climate. With 6–8 feet of snow on the ground for weeks, streets became impassable, people couldn’t get to work, and businesses shut down. The economic costs may have approached $1 billion.14 That was inconvenient.
But imagine Boston under a mile-thick sheet of ice, as it was 12,000 years ago (a short time in geological scale). That’s beyond inconvenient; it’s “game over.” New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which was tragic but temporary. But imagine New Orleans permanently under 10 feet of water. Imagine that California’s five-year drought hadn’t ended in 2017 but continued indefinitely, eventually depleting both reserves and aquifers, leaving an uninhabitable desert.
A New York magazine article in 2017 painted the picture of worst-case climate outcomes if we don’t solve the problem and don’t get lucky. The title, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” sums it up. The author reminds us that several past “mass extinction” events in Earth history were caused by greenhouse gases that warmed the planet and that the worst of these killed 97 percent of life on Earth.15
By the way, many warnings about climate change highlight the potential for violent conflict, but that is not a main concern, certainly not compared to a new ice age or rapid sea-level rise. To be sure, a world of changing climate could amplify larger-scale migration and fights over natural resources.16 These are real concerns and increasingly the focus of sustained policy attention.17 But these would take place in a world where war and violence have broadly declined over several generations.18 For instance, a well-publicized estimate that armed conflicts could increase by 50 percent as a result of climate change19 would still mean levels of conflict well below those of the Cold War. Also, refugees are more often a consequence than a cause of major armed conflicts, and natural disasters can not only fuel conflict but also sometimes reduce it, as happened after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, and the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.20 Claims that climate-induced drought fueled the civil war in Syria are probably overstated.21 Any increase in war, of course, is bad, but war is not the main outcome to worry about. The climate tipping points that would destabilize the planet’s ecosystem must remain our main focus.
We don’t know whether tipping points will come into play and trigger truly catastrophic outcomes, or when. One recent study gives current policies only a 5 percent chance of keeping global temperatures below 2ºC, the UN target for reducing the likelihood of catastrophic outcomes.22 But many climate scientists feel that even the UN target of 2ºC for global warming is not at all safe.23 Any reasonable approach must recognize that catastrophes of this nature should be prevented with great vigor and dispatch even if their timing and eventuality are not certain.
A Slow-Motion Asteroid
Climate change is, therefore, not an environmental issue but an existential one. It is the slow-motion equivalent of a large asteroid heading toward Earth. Imagine that scientists discovered such an asteroid far off in space, headed our way. Their best guess was that it would probably hit us, but whether it destroyed just a few cities or all life on Earth was still uncertain. It might even miss altogether, although only 3 percent of scientists believed that.
What would we do? Clearly, and especially if the impact was just a few years away, we would mobilize the full capabilities of the world’s countries, especially our military forces and budgets, to meet the threat. We would put the brightest minds on the task of figuring out a solution, and we would get out there to meet and deflect the asteroid at the earliest feasible date. With every day of delay, the asteroid would come closer and the task of deflecting it would become more challenging.
We would not argue about whether potential solutions were too technological and not “natural” enough. We would not complain that big corporations were going to make huge profits off the project (of course they would). We would not put our efforts into organizing for social justice on the grounds that the asteroid would probably affect poor people more than rich people (of course it would). We would not, most of us, go into denial or declare the end of Earth to be God’s will. We would get out there and give the thing a good bump to save our planet.
But suppose, instead of a few years, the asteroid was not going to hit for a few decades—let’s say, on its next orbit around the sun instead of this one. It would still be true that now is the cheapest, safest, most effective time to get out there and change its course. But we might lose the urgency and get distracted. By the time we tried to change the asteroid’s trajectory, it might be too late to succeed.
This is the trouble with climate action: Measures taken in the short term, especially in the next decade or two, will determine the long-term outcomes, but the pain and costs of the long-term outcomes will not be felt until decades later. It’s act now, benefit later. Those most affected have no voice and no vote because they are very young or haven’t yet been born.24 In fact, a group of young Americans, who will bear the costs, have sued the federal government for the right to a stable future climate.25
Unfortunately, climate change has become a partisan issue in the United States. Conservatives deny any problem, and liberals too often fold the issue into a wider agenda of ending capitalism, globalization, inequality, and injustice. Author Naomi Klein calls climate change a “historic opportunity” to achieve these long-standing leftist goals.26 As environmentalist George Marshall argues, climate change calls for a narrative of common purpose (humans need to rise to the challenge of climate change together), but people are more motivated by an “enemy narrative” (for example, the evil corporations are to blame). This leads many people to just ignore climate change even though they know it’s a serious problem.27
The authors of this book—a political scientist and an energy engineer—share a deep concern for climate change and an alarm that the world is falling far short of what is needed to address it. We vigorously support today’s popular solutions such as solar power,28 wind power, and energy efficiency. But, as we will see in later chapters, these solutions simply do not add up fast enough to do what’s needed. And if climate solutions have to wait for the end of capitalism, we’re all in very deep trouble indeed.
Timing Is Everything
Just to meet the Paris Agreement targets, action before 2020 is critical. In 2017 a long list of climate policy leaders called for sweeping and almost immediate changes to begin reducing CO2 emissions by 2020. “If we delay,” they warned, “the conditions for human prosperity will be severely curtailed.”29
Computer simulations developed at MIT30 show the effect of timing in terms of when carbon emissions peak and how fast they decline. The model makes two things clear. First, almost regardless of anything we do, the world will pass 1.5ºC around 2040. The Paris Agreement urged us to try to stay below that level if possible, but in truth that chance has passed. Second, what we do in the next ten years to peak and rapidly reduce emissions determines what happens in the second half of the century. A rapid decarbonization starting in 2020 means staying within the 2ºC target that the United Nations has established as the upper limit. Anything less aggressive means blowing past that level in a few decades, as we will blow past 1.5ºC around 2040. And business as usual means a 4.5ºC increase by 2100.
If we peaked emissions immediately and let them continue at today’s level, as the Paris Agreement would do, temperatures would still rise by more than 3ºC by the end of the century. But if instead we reduced emissions by about 2–3 percent each year starting in 2020,31 total emissions from the energy sector would go below zero by 2065 and global temperature rise would reach only 2ºC by about 2070 and then stay there.32 This kind of reduction in carbon pollution, about 30 percent per decade, would be the needed rapid decarbonization. Fifty percent per decade would be better, but 30 percent would work.
As this book will show, such a goal is achievable, but not the way we are going about things now. Nor does the idea of cobbling together a series of “climate stabilization wedges”—each a step in the right direction using existing technology—get us to the goal.33 In the fifteen years since these wedges were proposed, little progress has been made on them individually, and overall progress has also not materialized. We need to look at the big picture and not just steps in the right direction.34
Focus on Electricity
This book focuses on electricity generation. Fossil-fuel carbon emissions come mostly from three main sectors of the economy—electricity generation, transportation, and heat (for buildings and industrial processes). Changes in land use, agriculture, and forests are also important for the climate, as is production of both steel and cement. Our primary focus is on phasing out fossil fuels used for electricity, because this is the quickest and most far-reaching way to reduce emissions. Emission reductions in transportation and heating will probably, to a large extent, involve electricity,35 so clean electric power becomes all the more important in displacing fossil fuels.
By no means does this suggest that other aspects of greenhouse gas reduction can be ignored. We need to move from deforestation to reforestation, to change agricultural practices broadly, to implement energy-efficiency measures in all our vehicles and buildings, and so forth. We support all these efforts, but in this short book our primary focus is on rapidly decarbonizing electricity generation.
The units we use to measure electricity can sound technical, so here is a quick summary. The watt (W) is the basic unit of power—how much energy is produced or consumed in a unit of time. The old standard incandescent bulb was a 100W bulb. More often we will speak in kilowatts (kW, a thousand watts). A kW used for one hour makes a kilowatt-hour, which is the unit of energy you will find on your electric bill. In the United States, the average retail price of electricity is about 10 cents/kWh,36 though it can be double that in places. The rate includes somewhat more than half for generation and the rest for transmission and distribution. A good wholesale price for electricity generation is around 5 cents/kWh, while anything around 10 cents or even 20 cents becomes uncompetitive economically. Such numbers come into play in later chapters. On a larger scale, the unit for measuring a typical power plant is a gigawatt (GW, a billion watts). Power production is measured in terawatt-hours (TWh, a billion kWh). Unless otherwise noted, since we are writing about electricity, units of generation capacity such as a GW refer to the electric production, often called a GWe, rather than the heat energy produced in generating that electricity.
So, to summarize, this is the situation: In order to avert future catastrophe, we need to rapidly reduce global carbon emissions by 2–3 percent a year, starting almost immediately.
The world as a whole has never done this before, but several individual countries have. They are the only models we have that prove the possibility of rapid decarbonization. We will examine these cases and then consider whether there are other ways to reach the same result.
What Sweden Did
ONE COUNTRY STANDS out for its success in rapid decarbonization. From 1970 to 1990, Sweden cut its total carbon emissions by half and its emission per person by more than 60 percent. At the same time, Sweden’s economy expanded by 50 percent, and its electricity generation more than doubled.1
It all started in the late 1960s, and not because of concerns about climate change. By the end of the sixties, Sweden had started to halt the expansion of hydropower, in order to protect some of its last remaining undammed rivers.2 At the time, it was not clear what energy source could be used to cover the ever-increasing demands for electricity, but oil was the most likely candidate. However, the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, which caused huge price spikes and supply disruptions, convinced the Swedes to develop an alternative to imported fossil fuels.
Instead of expanding use of fossil fuels such as oil to cover its growing electricity demands, Sweden built a series of power plants using a new energy source called kärnkraft. This source is carbon-free like hydropower, cheaper than imported oil, much less harmful to health than coal, and incredibly concentrated. One pound of kärnkraft fuel produces the same energy as more than 2 million pounds of coal!3 The amount of toxic waste produced in the electricity generation process is also many thousands of times less than using coal and even much less than methane (natural gas).
The big difference between kärnkraft and fossil fuels (or renewables) is the tremendous concentration of energy in kärnkraft fuel. The fuel to run a kärnkraft unit for a year fits onto a truck. The fuel to run a similar-size coal plant for a year fills 25,000 railroad cars.4 The energy released by kärnkraft fuel weighing as much as a single penny equals that released by burning 5 tons of coal.5 A similar disparity applies to waste streams from kärnkraft and from fossils. From an environmental perspective, this fantastic concentration of energy allows less mining and pollution for the same amount of energy.6
Kärnkraft provided Sweden with a glut of reliable and cheap electricity. It not only enabled the country to expand its use of energy and electricity very rapidly without the increased use of fossil fuels (as was the case in most of the rest of the world), but also enabled Sweden to retire its existing fossil-fueled energy supply. The kärnkraft expansion, along with the development of biomass and waste-fueled district heating systems,7 drove many previously fossil-fueled activities to switch to clean energy. The total energy supply from oil products dropped by more than 40 percent, and in the same time period the use of electricity for heating expanded fivefold.8
Sweden built a dozen kärnkraft units, grouped on just four sites, in the 1970s and ’80s and even built a couple of units in neighboring Finland at the same time. At the peak of kärnkraft’s rollout in the 1970s, Sweden had about one large unit under construction per million citizens. The same rate applied in China or India today would mean a concurrent construction of more than a thousand units in each country (as we will discuss later). Eight of the plants built in Sweden continue to operate today (as do the two in Finland), and together they produce 40 percent of Sweden’s electricity, equal to hydropower, with the rest coming mainly from biofuels and wind power. These power plants have never had any serious accidents and fewer incidents altogether than almost any other industry would routinely expect. Nobody has died from the kärnkraft (notwithstanding a few fatal industrial accidents at the power plants, unrelated to the power source). Nobody has choked on the polluting exhaust because there isn’t any. The plants can run at about 90 percent capacity on average over the year, producing electricity reliably around the clock.9 Sweden’s economy has thrived in the kärnkraft era, with cheap electricity for industrial, commercial, and residential use. Sweden enjoys a relatively high level of energy use per person and stays warm during its cold northern winters.
The largest of the four kärnkraft sites is at Ringhals, on Sweden’s west coast. On just 150 acres (1/4 square mile), it can produce up to 4 gigawatts of electricity, 24/7. It averages 24 terawatt-hours of electricity generated in a normal year.10 Like Ringhals, Sweden’s other two kärnkraft sites, the Forsmark and Oskarshamn plants, generate large amounts of electricity cleanly and quietly in lush, scenic, and tranquil locations on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
What if the same electricity were produced by other means?11 Replacing the Ringhals plant with one fueled by coal would require almost 11 million tons of coal each year—a train more than 1,300 miles long, producing 2 million tons of toxic solid waste (ash, mercury, and more), including radioactive components,12 and spewing huge clouds of particulates into the air—enough to kill about 700 Swedes each year.13 It would also produce about 22 million tons of CO2 to accelerate climate change.14 Coal miners would die in accidents and suffer from black-lung disease. Landscapes would be leveled by strip mines.
Getting the same electricity from oil would be much more expensive and somewhat less polluting than coal—but only somewhat. To replace Ringhals, every year 40 million barrels of oil would be pumped and transported, the size of twenty supertankers, with risks of massive spills at sea, from pipelines, or from trains. Burning the oil would release particulates, though less than coal, and pour 17 million tons of CO2
- The most important book about climate change since An Inconvenient Truth.—from the foreword by Steven Pinker
- "A Bright Future starts with a bang. 'Few books can credibly claim to offer a way to save the world, but this one does,' the psychologist Steven Pinker writes in his foreword. That is a bold assertion, but by the time I had finished the book, I was half-convinced he was right."—Ed Crooks, Financial Times
- "A Bright Future addresses the fears that people have around nuclear as an energy source and illuminates a path to making it a more significant part of our energy portfolio. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to preserve the planet for our children and grandchildren."—Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the EPA
- "A Bright Future lays out the only viable path that has been proposed for rapid global decarbonization."—James Hansen, climate scientist, Columbia University
- "A Bright Future comes along at a critical time for our planet. Its key message: the climate is changing, the consequences are serious, and we can and must take action."—George P. Shultz
- "A rational if somewhat unlikely strategy to reverse global warming using current technology and without self-denial... The authors argue for nuclear power, and the facts are certainly on their side....A reasonable argument directed at a lay audience."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Goldstein and Qvist offer food for thought, making this a viable resource in the arsenal of arguments for and against the best methods of staving off a global energy crisis."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Nov 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages